Don’t Say Things That Are Obviously True and Other Conference Survival Tips | SehndeWeb

Ten years ago, while attending a conference in an unprecedentedly prosperous westernized Moscow, I went to interview British KGB double agent George Blake at his out-of-town dacha. It was supposed to be just a newspaper article, but it got out of control, and my biography of him came out last year. Others of my recent books emerged after meeting the right people at conferences in Doha and Istanbul, another city that has since almost given up on the international exchange of ideas.

Conferences are essential to this exchange, and now they are restarting. I recently attended my first in two years (where I couldn’t find a book, but did catch Covid-19). These events can change your way of thinking, and even your life. But most people’s presentation skills are so poor that sitting in a lecture hall is the closest thing to a 13-year-old child being bored to death in physics class. In an effort to improve quality, here are my tips for potential speakers:

  • Know that the audience is bored before you even open your mouth. You’re also competing with the phone on everyone’s lap. Your first redundant words – “Okay, so, well, uh, as Sheila says, I’m going to talk about . . . ” – are a signal for them to switch you off. Your mission is to prevent that.

  • Your listeners will retain at most one idea of ​​your speech. The ideal, then, is to present a single, important and surprising insight, and back it up with evidence and telling anecdotes – which people absorb more easily than ideas. This is why the TED Talk format generally works even when the content is fake. The single idea method is not about simplifying, but about focusing.

  • Help keep the audience focused by speaking for less than your allotted time. If you have 15 minutes, finish in 12, instead of going over and trying to go through your last slides, which looks like bad planning.

  • Don’t read your speech because it will sound boring. Memorize it by saying it out loud once a day for five days in advance. Hearing yourself spoken repeatedly should also inspire you to make the language more human. Bring your notes on stage in case you’re empty, but you should find yourself able to deliver them freely.

  • Most of us are boring to watch. Make your performance more visually interesting by walking around the stage and looking at the audience. There’s a reason singers, political speakers, and religious speakers don’t tend to perform from their chairs.

  • Use slides or videos to stop people looking at your face. But don’t fill the slides with large chunks of text. Your mouth is for the words and the slides are for the pictures.

  • Don’t make the “hard hour after lunch” joke, and if you’re a moderator introducing a panel, resist the “and last, but certainly not least” line. Jokes are fine, but only jokes.

  • If English is not your first language, use simple words. Don’t procrastinate or use jargon, you might find yourself speaking better than in your own language.

  • Don’t say things that are obviously true, because they are redundant and people will disconnect: “It’s not a panacea”, “All the stakeholders have to work together”, “You have to be sustainable.” Also, don’t say things that are blatantly untrue, like “We value all of our employees.”

  • Do not use Marcus Aurelius quotebecause people will know you got it from the internet.


If you follow these rules, then measured on the career of an active speaker, you will improve the experience of tens of thousands of people. You might even influence someone, or just forge a human connection.

However, some speakers may obey all of these rules and say nothing of value. It is best to avoid speeches from people who represent a company or other organization, as they are usually only there to advertise it and will not say anything that is not official policy. (An exception to this rule are CEOs of a narcissistic bent who tend to say what they want.) The ideal speaker has in-depth knowledge of a topic and an intention to reveal it. Some conferences do not feature anyone of this description.

Of course, in many conferences, discussions are irrelevant anyway. You came to escape your family or to visit a city you may never see again, perhaps because it will disappear from international society. The problem then becomes the simulation of avid attendance. An august historian has found the solution: show up on the first day in a flowery shirt and ask lots of questions. Everyone will remember you were there, and then you can spend the rest of the time on the river or interrogating double agents.

Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and send him an e-mail at simon.kuper@ft.com

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